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Posted on Sep 22, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 053 – The Landing Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

“Future wars will not be confined to the customary military fronts and combat areas. The battle fronts of opposing ideologies (resistance movements, revolutionary partisan organizations, Irredentist elements), which today in an age of dying nationalism cut through all great powers and civilized nations, will be able to create favorable conditions for large-scale airborne landings deep in the enemy’s country and for maintaining such bases of operation as have been won by airborne operations in the interior of the enemy’s sovereign territory.”


Chief of Staff of the German Army, 1938-1942


In our last article, we focused on the air movement plan. As we highlighted, it is the plan that sets the conditions for the decisive operation on the ground. It does this by ensuring the right Soldiers, weapons, equipment, and vehicles are on the right aircraft at the right time. In our discussion on the air movement plan, we keyed on several areas. These included: The Air Movement Table, the various types of air movement, load planning, and air manifesting. From our article, you should surmise that there is little, if any, room for error in the air movement plan. Clearly, it is extremely difficult to make any adjustments once aircraft begin taking off. Mistakes made in the air movement plan will be felt dramatically on the ground.


We will continue our series on airborne operations by keying on the landing plan. As a reminder, we are addressing the airborne plans in the sequence they are executed rather than the order in which they are planned. In studying the landing plan, we will focus on a few specific subjects. These are: 1) Selecting a Drop Zone, 2) Delivery Methods and Techniques, 3) Methods for Attacking the Objective and 4) Assembly Procedures. So “Let’s Stand Up, Hook Up, Shuffle to the Door”.


The landing plan builds up combat power in the objective area. It is critical that the right force lands at the right time, in the right place in order to allow the unit as a whole to complete its mission. Precise execution ensures forces are able to mass under the cover of key supporting systems in a location and manner preventing their piecemeal defeat. The landing plan links air movement to the ground tactical plan. It is published at brigade and below. It is a comprehensive roll up of the sequence or arrival, method, and destination of paratroopers and materiel to the objective. The landing plan has five elements:

  • Sequence of delivery
  • Method of delivery
  • Place of delivery
  • Time of delivery
  • The assembly plan

Let’s address each.

Sequence of Delivery – This is obviously ground commander’s business. Based on the ground tactical plan, he will sequence his units to facilitate achieving his mission on the ground. If available, the commander will utilize Pathfinders to emplace and operate navigation aids and mark the DZ’s. Once the DZ is set, units will drop in based on their specific purposes and tasks in the ground tactical plan.

Method of Delivery This addresses how the force and its’ equipment arrive in the objective area. As in everything, METT-TC (Mission, Enemy, Terrain and Weather, Troops and Support Available, Time Available, and Civilian Considerations) play a huge role in the method of delivery. In choosing the method of delivery, the commander has many options available to deliver troops, equipment, and supplies to objective. These include:

Personnel Airdrop. Assault personnel are dropped on any terrain free of obstacles that allows them to land on or close to the objective. When augmented with special equipment, they can be dropped in rough terrain or water. Special teams can use high altitude, high opening (HAHO) or high altitude, low opening (HALO) techniques as a means of covert insertion.

Equipment/Supply/Airdrop. Airborne forces can airdrop supplies and equipment directly to units behind enemy lines or in rough terrain that is not easily accessed by the enemy.

Types of equipment delivery. Free drop, high-velocity drop, low-velocity drop, HALO, and LAPES are different types of air deliveries. Let’s highlight these deliveries below:

  • Free drop (less than 600 feet above ground level (AGL)). Free drops don’t use chutes. Items like barrier material and clothing can be free dropped.
  • High-velocity airdrop (400 to 600 feet AGL). Parachutes that provide drag and hold the load upright are used for high-velocity drops. This works for items such as ammunition and rations.
  • Low-velocity airdrop (1,100 feet or less AGL). Low-velocity airdrop requires cargo parachutes and a drop platform or container. This is used for fragile materiel like vehicles and artillery tubes.
  • Heavy drop. This method is used to deliver vehicles, bulk cargo, and equipment. Airdrop aircraft deliver heavy-drop equipment just ahead of the main body or 30 minutes after the last paratrooper exits.
  • Door bundles. This procedure uses a cargo sling or cargo bag that can be dropped without aid. Loads of 500lbs or less are kicked out the door before troopers jump.
  • HALO. HALO is used to drop supplies and equipment when aircraft must fly above the threat air defense.
  • Low-altitude parachute extraction system. LAPES uses extraction parachutes to airdrop palletized loads and equipment from aircraft flying 5 to 10 feet above the ground. LAPES is used to deliver vehicles, artillery, ammunition, supplies, equipment, and water.

Place of Delivery – In determining the place of delivery, the key determinant is deciding on the method of attacking the objective. There are three basic methods. These are

  • Jumping or landing on top of the objective (vertical envelopment).
  • Jumping or landing near the objective.
  • Jumping or landing at a distance from the objective.

We will discuss each next.

Methods for attacking the objective.

One of the most critical decisions to be made in determining your overall landing plan is how you plan to attack the ground objective. This decision drives the train for many things. There are three basic methods

  • Jumping or landing on top of the objective (vertical envelopment). This method works when the objective is small, lightly defended, and is oriented against ground attack. Given the high risk this method involves, surprise is key to the success.
  • Jumping or landing near the objective. This works best for the capture of a lightly defended objective that must be seized intact such as a bridge. The stronger the enemies air defenses—the more essential is surprise in order to succeed with minimal casualties.
  • Jumping or landing at a distance from the objective. This method is used when the objective is large, well defended, complex, and is protected by significant air defenses. Such an objective requires seizure by a deliberate attack.

To further elaborate on these methods, we have included the thoughts of German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Kesselring was one of Germany’s most proficient commanders. Yet, his career has been seemingly overlooked by most historians. These comments come from the Department of the Army Pamphlet; Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal dated October 1951.

Jumping or landing on top of the objective (vertical envelopment).

Airborne landings into an area which is strongly defended against air attack can succeed only when there is absolute surprise. To be sure, the effect of weapons against parachutes in the air is generally overestimated. However, every landing harbors within itself a pronounced element of weakness which increases while troops are under the defensive fire of the enemy and which may lead to disaster during the very first moments of ground combat. The examples of Arnhem (1944) and Sicily (1943) speak only too eloquently for this; such examples will occur again and again. The attack against Fort Eben Emael can be considered as an example to the contrary. The study of this attack will enable one to recognize the possibilities and limitations of such operations.

Jumping or landing near the objective.

The prerequisites for a landing near the objective are correctly described. Such landings, however, should be planned so that they are not subject to the disadvantages which occur when jumping directly into the objective. When one has to reckon with strong antiaircraft defenses, a success costing few casualties can generally be achieved only through surprise. Gliders are superior to parachutists because of their soundless approach.

Jumping or landing at a distance from the objective.

In large-scale operations it will be the rule to jump at a point some distance away from the objective. One should not belittle the advantage of landing, assembling, and organizing troops in an area which is out of danger! The factor of surprise is still retained to a greater or lesser extent according to the time of day or night, the weather conditions, and the terrain. A combination of landings into and near the objective may be advisable or necessary for tactical reasons or for deception, in order to scatter the enemy fire. The same purpose may be achieved by launching diversionary attacks when landing at some distance.

Once the method of attacking the objective is decided; the focus can shift to the location of the DZ.


A poorly chosen drop zone or one that lacks the terminal control of a Pathfinder team can result in tragedy such as what happened at Saint Mere-Eglise in WWII.

The capture of Saint Mere-Eglise on D-Day was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. The town was a key communications hub and was the main route between Cherbourg and the bulk of the German Army. Its seizure would isolate Cherbourg. The jump did not go as planned. Two planeloads of paratroopers were dropped directly on the town. To make the situation even worse, a farmhouse had caught fire during the pre-drop bombardment. The fire not only drew the townspeople and the German defenders into the streets, it lit up the sky – silhouetting the descending jumpers. The defenders opened fire on the helpless paratroopers, many of whom were killed in their chutes. At least two paratroopers were drawn into the fire itself and more jumpers were killed after becoming entangled in trees and rooftops. Many of the survivors were quickly taken prisoner. This dramatic drop was made famous by the movie ‘The Longest Day’ where the actor Red Buttons played trooper John Steel during that fateful night. Steel dropped onto towns church and got hung up on the steeple where he hung, playing dead, for two hours. Steel was eventually taken prisoner but he escaped and rejoined his unit.

DZ Survey. DZ/LZ selection begins with a map recon that is augmented by analysis from topographic engineers and Air Force recon. The result is the area survey. This enables subunits to select the location, size, and orientation of DZs to best support the scheme of maneuver.

Drop zones are selected after a detailed analysis that considers the following factors:

  • Ease of Identification. A DZ should be easy to spot from the air. Pilots prefer to rely on visual recognition of terrain features to pinpoint DZ’s.
  • Out of Range. The DZ obviously avoids enemy air defenses and strong ground defenses and places paratroopers outside the range of enemy suppressive fires.
  • Close to or on the Objective. If the enemy situation permits, the commander should choose a DZ directly on top of assault objectives.
  • Weather. Adverse weather can dangerously expose an airborne operation. Ground fog, mist, haze, smoke, and low clouds can hinder aerial observation while high winds can scatter jumpers and increase landing injuries.
  • Terrain. Clearly, the flatter the terrain the better. You should avoid man-made obstacles more than 150 feet above the level of the DZ within 3 miles. The perimeter of the DZ should have one or more open approach sectors free of obstacles that block aerial view of the DZ markings. Cover and concealment near the DZs help units assemble and deploy. The DZ should exploit dominating terrain and provide avenues of approach to the objective, and should be defensible against mounted assault.
  • DZ Size and Shape. The most desirable shapes for a DZ’s are rectangular or circular. Both provide approaching aircraft with multiple approach choices. A DZ should be large enough to accommodate the force assigned to it. Multiple passes are dangerous since the first pass will alert enemy scouts and antiaircraft positions who will then lay in wait for follow-on drops. There are situations when multiple passes can be used such as when there is no significant air defense threat.

In terms of the number of DZs utilized, there are two techniques:

  • Multiple drop zones. Multiple DZs create numerous airheads in the objective area. This creates mass by placing the maximum number of paratroopers in the objective area in the minimum amount of time.
  • Single drop zone. This method is used by brigade and smaller units. The single DZ allows a rapid development of unit airheads.

Time of Delivery Landing plan times are stated in terms of P-hour (when the first paratrooper exits the aircraft). Paratroopers prefer limited visibility operations in order to maximize surprise. The night or day decision depends on air superiority, security from ground observation, surprise, and experience of both airlift and airborne personnel.

Night ops enhance surprise and survivability while reducing the probability of enemy air attack. Limited visibility operations reduce antiaircraft vulnerability and hinder the defender’s ground fires. Night operations aren’t without problems—they complicate air and land navigation and increase assembly and movement times.

Daylight ops provide better air and ground visibility, but this works both ways. Forces are more vulnerable to enemy air defense, ground fire, and air attack, and will probably lose the element of surprise.

The Assembly Plan One of the most critical pieces of the landing plan is the actions that take place immediately after boots hit the ground. It is imperative that Airborne Soldiers quickly come under command and control so they can begin execution of the ground tactical plan. Rapid assembly is key. Assembly includes accounting for personnel while reestablishing the tactical integrity that allows units to fight as a combined arms team. Speed enhances success. The assembly plan places weapon systems into action as quickly as possible; establishes C2 nets; and accounts for casualties and stragglers. The best way to achieve this is by having procedures in place to assemble the unit once they are on the ground. Let’s discuss some of the ways to assist in this.

Assembly techniques. There are three general ways to assemble:

  • On the Objective: This technique is utilized when speed is essential, the objective is lightly defended, or the enemy can be suppressed. Obviously, if you can assemble on the objective you have clearly saved significant time.
  • On the DZ: This is used when the DZ will not be used by follow-on forces, speed is not essential, and avenues of approach from the DZ to the objective are available.
  • Adjacent to the DZ: This is used when follow-on forces will use the DZ or if the DZ is compromised during the assault.

Assembly aids. These speed up assembly after landing and orient paratroopers once on the ground. Assembly aids identify personnel, equipment, and points on the ground. Units use visual, audible, electronic, natural, or individual aids. Pathfinders, Special Forces, partisans or aircraft can deliver assembly aids. Commanders should provide backup aids and delivery means. Below we will address some of the more commonly used aids:

  • Line-of-Flight or Clock System. Leaders use the clock system to brief soldiers, calling the direction of flight 12 o’clock. After landing, soldiers assemble to the right of the DZ at 3 o’clock or to the left of the DZ at 9 o’clock.
  • Natural Assembly Aids. These include landmarks or recognizable terrain features. These include hills; stream junctions; clumps of woods; or man-made objects like radio towers, bridges, buildings, crossroads, or railroads.
  • Visual aids. Visual aids include visible light sources, such as beacons, flashlights, strobe lights, or signal mirrors; panels; flags; balloons; infrared lights, such as metascopes, flashlights with filters, infrared weapons sights, or starlight scopes; pyrotechnics; and chemical lights. Colored panels may also be utilized to signify specific units. For example, Delta Company assembles at the red panel; Bravo Company assembles at the blue panel; etc….
  • Audible aids. Audible aids help small units assemble at night. They include tin crickets (as in The Longest Day), air horns, whistles, and voice signals. Strong winds, gunfire, and aircraft sounds can limit effectiveness. The normal battlefield noise can confuse the audible assembly aids.
  • Electronic aids. Airborne units can use radios or radio homing devices to vector small units into AAs.
  • Field-expedient aids. A resourceful unit can exploit numerous field-expedient aids. A unit can burn gasoline-soaked sand in cans (often used as Target Reference Points — TRP’s in the defense) can be used as a thermal beacon. IR strobes and 9 volt batteries snapped together also can be used and there are the ubiquitous chemlights (what can not a chem. light be used for!).

Factors Affecting Assembly. There are numerous factors which come into play in assembling units quickly and efficiently. These include: the airlift formation; type, speed, and altitude of the aircraft; number of serials; sequence of delivery; the landing pattern, the DZ size and shape, paratrooper and pilot skill, enemy disposition and weather conditions (darkness, fog, haze, rain, brush, trees, and terrain affect DZ visibility and thus impact assembly time). Darkness adds to confusion and loss of equipment.

Keys to rapid assembly.

  • Use AAs that are easy to find without complicated assembly aids, even if dropped on the wrong part of the DZ or on an unplanned DZ.
  • Locate AAs as close as possible to the drop zones.
  • Never locate AAs at either end of the DZ—soldiers should not have to walk from one end to the other.
  • Use special markings to speed assembly.

Activities in assembly areas. Units assemble as quickly possible and they get out of the AA as quickly as possible. The longer they linger, the more likely they are to be engaged. Paratroopers only stay in the AA long enough to establish communications, organize for combat, and determine unit status. While reorganizing, units can modify plans to meet changes in the situation.

Departure from the assembly area. Reorganization is complete when all subunits are assembled and communications are established. Miss-drops, enemy action or excessive straggling, may require assault battalions to attack before assembly is complete. The time and conditions for the assault units to move are outlined in operations order.

Security measures. All units are responsible for their own security. Airborne units are vulnerable to enemy ground attack from all directions during assembly. Given the fact that they are usually behind enemy lines, security requirements are extensive for the airborne force.

The assault element has the mission of gaining and maintaining the security of the DZ. The assault element protects the assembly of soldiers on the DZ. The size of the security force for a DZ/LZ depends on the enemy expected. The security force can uses a series of observation posts, roadblocks, and patrols to cordon their area. These security measures are usually simple due to a lack of time in the AA. Planning, however, is detailed and extensive and includes the mission, size, composition, and organization of each security element. It also identified the location of each OP, roadblock, and routes of patrols. The AA security plan covers communications, supporting fires; and unit boundaries. Security groups move out on their assigned missions as soon as they arrive in the assembly area.


The landing plan is the vital link connecting operations in the air with operations on the ground. Complete understanding of the ground tactical plan is imperative in developing the landing plan. You must know where the ground objectives are located so you can determine the method for attacking the objective and deciding on the DZ. As this article has highlighted, there is much in consider in the landing plan.


In the next issue, we will finally get down to the most exciting and dynamic portion of airborne operations—the ground tactical plan. This is where the ‘Devils in Baggy Pants’ make their money! In our article, we will key on various topics involved in the planning, preparation, end execution of the ground tactical plan.